Few lawmakers decided to skip Valentine’s Day dinners to watch four candidates for the state’s top military post undergo questioning by the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.
Only about a dozen lawmakers listened in the House Chamber as the committee ran through a standardized list of questions, identical for each candidate. This was a far cry from previous years, where such public interview meetings were overcrowded, said committee chair Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, at the start of the night.
The candidates were: Vermont Air Guard Brig. Steven Cray, retired Army Col. Michael Bullock, Army Col. Darryl Ducharme and South Burlington patent lawyer James Leas. Cray is the most senior and decorated military candidate, having served as an assistant adjutant general in the Vermont Air Guard.
But Leas stole the show with his pure political theater, though he doesn’t seem like a serious candidate for the post. Many lawmakers left as he started his performance.
Leas, a staunch and vocal opponent of the Air Force’s plan to base F-35 fighter jets in South Burlington, used most of his 20-minute interview to deliver an angry tirade against F-35s basing here, also accusing the Air Force of hypocrisy in breaking with its stated mission to protect the Constitution and private property.
All other candidates were in favor of basing the jets in Vermont.
“This aircraft is devastating for our citizens. … So this committee should hold hearings on this topic. It should not just put it on the wall,” said Leas, urging lawmakers to spend time on the topic and pass resolutions. The Air Force decides whether to base the F-35 here: state and local officials have no say.
Leas has no military experience and is seemingly anti-war, arguing that the military’s resources are best used to help the state recover from natural disasters, rather than in deployment. He filed his candidacy with the Secretary of State on Thursday, the day of the deadline for registering.
Currently, there’s no law preventing candidates without military experience from running for the state’s top post, said Secretary of State Jim Condos, but legislation has been introduced which reviews the selection process for the adjutant general position, according to Head.
The committee asked questions about the candidate’s “vision” for the state’s National Guard, how they’d tackle sexual assault and harassment, how they’d aid veterans, and how they’d make the state’s military more friendly towards its LGBT servicemen.
They also asked for views on how the Guard should adapt to whatever decision is made about the F-35, a decision expected this spring.
Last month, former Army Guard Brig. Gen. Jonathan Farnham dropped out of the race, amid anonymous accusations that he did little to deal with a case of sexual assault, as reported by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.
Head said the questions about sexual assault did not stem from that incident, but rather from legislation requiring reporting on sexual assault introduced before that controversy, by two of her committee members.
Sexual assault in the military “has been an issue nationally, and we have no reason to believe Vermont is immune. So we’re concerned about it and wanted it addressed,” said Head.
The answers to lawmakers’ questions were mostly uncontroversial and sometimes unspecific. The three military candidates stressed personal leadership and legal accountability in responding to sexual assault, with Bullock pledging to increase staffing and budget for prevention and response programs, and Cray saying he’d immediately convene a special taskforce, involve civilian law enforcement, and partner with nonprofit groups which fight against sexual assault.
All agreed that LGBT soldiers needed to be better accommodated.
Cray said he was the only officer to receive endorsements from both the Army Guard and Air Guard divisions of the National Guard. He’s also been endorsed by former adjutant general Martha Rainville.
Cray announced his candidacy alongside Farnham back in early December, while the other two military candidates are later additions to the race.
Both state representatives and senators will vote for the candidates by secret ballot next Thursday. The adjutant general oversees the 4,000 members of the Vermont Army and Air National Guard and a combined state and federal budget of over $210 million.